On Jews counting -another look at the problem of antisemitism in British politics

I wanted to revisit the issue of antisemitism here in the UK. I wrote a little bit more about this recently in the light of the Stephen Sizer case and this article builds a little on this one which looked at how someone who would not consider themselves, nor be considered by others as hating Jews could end up saying and doing things considered antisemitic.

You may remember that the question of antisemitism came up consistently around the previous leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.  Since he stepped down as the Leader of the Opposition, there has been a passionate rear guard effort by his staunchest supporters to rehabilitate his reputation.  Many insisting strongly that he was the victim of smears, that it was all a scam on the part of the Labour right, in collusion with the Tories.

David Baddiel who authored the book Jews Don’t Count and who has also presented a TV series by the same name was interviewed recently by Kay Burley and was asked specifically about Jeremy Corbyn. You can watch the pertinent clip here.

Those who see the thing as a scam were quick to seize on Baddiel’s words.  However, if our concern is less about getting our man off the hook and more about learning lessons and understanding what antisemitism is and how it works we would do better to pay proper attention to what Baddiel says.

David Baddiel’s point is that he does not believe that the question “was Corbyn antisemitic” was straight forward. His reason being that Corbyn would not hate Jews. That’s not something “at the front of his mind.”  Corbyn instead has a priority that in effect blinds him to potential exampls of antisemitism, his hatred of capitalism and this means that he doesn’t see examples of antisemitism when placed in front of him. 

Now, I think Baddiel goes easy on Corbyn and is incredible generous towards him.  You see, not only do I think that the mural referred to was perceived by Jews as antisemitic but it was fairly obvious to the reasonable observer that this was the case. It’s important to say this because some of the social media reactions to Baddiel’s comments were to suggest that if he saw Jews in the picture then the problem was with him.  Those making the comments must have missed the irony that they were using quite a classic attack line “oh we are not racist, we don’t see the colour of the person’s skin. If you have then you must be the real racist.”

However, leaving that aside for one moment, it is worth noting that if we leap on what Baddiel says to exonerate Jeremy Corbyn then we risk missing out on a couple of important points concerning not just antisemitism but our understanding of racism generally.  When looking at the wider topic, we’ve learnt that the problem isn’t just to do with personal hatred, fear or antagonism to individuals because of their ethnicity (though that can be a form of racism), rather there are other ways in which we can cause them suffer from racial discrimination. These include unconscious bias, where a  person does not realise that they bias instinctively towards some and away from others, that’s what in effect Baddiel suggests Corbyn is culpable of.  It also includes systemic and structural racism where the whole system works against people because of their background or allows a toxic culture to grow around them.  Again, this is what many Jews within the Labour movement were complaining about between 2015-2020.

As I observed in the article about Sizer, I think that one way this specifically arises with antisemitism is that because of other agendas (such as anticapitalism or pro-Palestine), people begin, even subconsciously to buy into specific narratives about The Jews and Israel that are rooted in conspiracy theories.  When this happens, we begin to see a specific outworking of this where antisemitism happens but is excused as in fact being about Zionism.  Sizer would argue that he is not antisemitic, rather he is anti-Zionist.  I think Corbyn would seek to make the same distinction. The argument for that is that the two labels are not equivalent, not all Jews are Zionists, not all Zionists are Jews.  In fact, it is often pointed out that the first Zionist identified as a Christian.

Here’s the problem with that argument.  The labels may not be equivalent but they do overlap. And when anti-Zionist language is used in contexts and ways where it could only apply to ethnic Jews then you have a problem. It’s a bit like trying to claim that you were really seeking to challenge Islamic beliefs when very clearly you were targeting and caricaturing Arabs or South Asians. 

That’s why this example is problematic.

In the video, Jeremy Corbyn talks about Zionists.  However, he is specifically talking about people who may or may not have been born here in Britain but for whatever reason are unable to get English humour. The Zionists he has in his sights are very clearly people that Corbyn does not consider ethnically and culturally English.  They are outsiders, foreigners, even if born here.

So, what we unfortunately have there is a classic example of the very kind of words and behaviours that are often associated with antisemitism  This is considered a specific example of antisemitism because it links to two of the examples in the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

  • Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor

This is because the label Zionist is often used to describe the perceived conspiracy of the Jews, through the State of Israel to gain control of the media, economy and government institutions.  So, whilst it is possible to talk negatively about Zionism, meaning a specific political philosophy, you need to be very careful to show that you are doing this and not using the word in an overlapping manner. 

And as I’ve suggested above, what we are seeing here are examples of normal expectations for other ethnic groups when they are describing their experiences of racism.  In that sense, all that Jews are asking for is permission to describe their own experience of racism using the same accepted terms and concepts. If we are serious about dealing with all forms of racism then we should make it our priority to understand their experience rather than prioritising excusing the behaviour of our preferred religious or political heroes.

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